Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid

So if you haven't been paying close attention to Agitation Of The Mind's Peckinpahfest you've been missing out on some truly excellent and insightful film criticism. Go catch up now if you haven't got a chance to yet. I contributed two pieces earlier in the blogathon, and the great Neil Fulwood gave his usually excellent taste a rest and asked me for a third, which I couldn't help but oblige.

The first time I heard about Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid, it was described to me as a Western by Antonioni. This didn’t exactly compel me to see the film, as Antonioni’s ennui powered cinematic slogs have never been my favorite flavor of filmmaking (with the notable exception of Eclipse). I was really only familiar with The Wild Bunch and The Getaway at that point, and I didn’t see Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid until much later when I really started to devour Peckinpah, instigated by the one two punch of Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia (Which I was inspired to seek out by Ebert’s brilliant essay) and Ride The High Country.

But when I finally did see the film I had to admit the term was just right. Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid is a slow, existential, muted, dreamy film, which chronicles the death of a personality as much as it does the end of an era (No coincidence that the movie was originally written for Monte Helleman. Undisputed King of muted, existential, dreamy slow paced films). Like Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia, Pat Garrett is a strangely subjective movie (Why hasn't The Acidemic reviewed it yet?), symbol heavy and nearly stream of conscienceness in the way that everything external in the movie seems to be just a twisted reflection of Garrett’s internal strife (Part of what makes The Getaway so frustrating despite its pleasures is the fact that in this and Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia Peckinpah proved that he was more or less the only person in the world who COULD have shot El Ray) It’s a surreal film sans surrealism, a mere naked midget and rain of blood away from being a Jodorowsky film.

Though I think it’s a flawed film, some of the fault coming from the notorious Studio interference the movie endured some of it not (but we’ll get to that later) it is also one of my favorite Peckinpah films, behind only The Wild Bunch and Ride The High Country and in isolated moments of grace remains unmatched in Peckinpah’s oeuvre.

As I mentioned before the movie is impressively abstract. The film opens with Garrett’s own death intercutting with the raucous party Billy is throwing that ends up starting the rest of the film. It’s a ballsy way to open the film, with the foreknowledge that we’re basically going to spend the movie watching a dead man kill someone. It highlights the absurdity of the whole situation. In Billy, Garrett basically seeks to execute a younger version of himself. The entire film is just one long journey towards death (when Garrett finally reaches his destination who does he meet but a coffin maker.) It’s a mission of self negation done at the beck and call of men that Garrett can’t stand. The flashback structure is also significant given that just about everyone we take the time to meet in the film ends up dead. For most of the runtime Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid is a movie populated strictly by Ghosts.

If Wild Bunch is about death’s horror and brutality(the normal term when used to talk about Peckinpah is violence but what is violence but death’s ambassador?) Ride The High Country is about its tragedy, and The Ballad Of Cabal Hogue is about its necessity, then Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid is about its absurdity.

Unlike in The Wild Bunch, The Getaway, or hell just about every Peckinpah movie in which someone dies, nobody in Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid WANTS to kill each other. But they somehow manage just the same. Most of the people fighting know each other, and their gun battles are punctuated with them talking about old times. Even in the film’s most Gruesome (And kind of Glorious) death scene the infamous “Shot Gun Full of Dimes” bit the prison guard just happens to be in the way, albeit his sadism does make his grisly end a bit satisfying (For an interesting bit of autuerist study check out the way Arthur Penn that other great cinematic poet of violence directed the same sequence in The Left Handed Gun). This is of course highlighted in The Raft sequence in which Garrett and a family floating by on a raft start shooting at each other, and keep doing it until they both gradually realize they have no reason to. The violence is so literally pointless that its comical.

Unfortunately a few other things are comical in Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid as well, unintentionally so. Particularly in the disastrous stunt casting of Bob Dylan as Billy’s gibbering knife throwing sidekick. Playing at his most mumbling and twitchy, as though somebody told him his character was a Gremlin, Dylan’s jaw droppingly bad. Which leads to the other elephant in the room, Dylan’s score is also jaw droppingly bad.

This is obscured by the fact that the moment when Knocking On Heaven’s Door plays over Slim Picken’s Death is one of the finest that Peckinpah ever committed to celluloid. Infact just for truth in criticism here it is.

The problem is the rest of it. Its lyric heavy, distracting, and laughably bad. Don’t believe me? It contains the line “Drinkin Margaritas/ With the Senoritas.” That line gets repeated. Dylan actually sings with a straight face “Oh Billy They Don’t Want You To Be So Free.” It’s mind blowing.

As for Billy himself, I’ve always found him a bit problematic as well. Kristopherson is a fine if limited actor. When he plays Billy as the center of his own universe, like when he calmly saunters out of the town after executing the two deputies charged with guarding him, mocking the cowed townsfolk, who seconds before where yowling to watch him die, he’s perfect. Unfortunately the film has him spending so much time being beautific (something I’d attribute to Wurletzer over Peckinpah) that he remains a cipher through most of the runtime, and not a particularly interesting one. When he assumes a cruciform right before his death I was only shocked to be reminded that he hadn’t been standing that way for the entire film.

One could argue that given the fact that I’ve argued that the film is a movie of abstracts its fitting that Billy be purely symbolic. But there’s too much life around the edges of the film for me to fully except the way he’s portrayed.

I feel like I’m being too rough on the film though. Its one I truly do love, and I should point out that the only reason I’m able to articulate what bugs me about it is that I’ve seen the film a couple dozen times. Pat Garrett remains a stunning and unique cinematic vision. Its a rich movie. One of the few films that actually earns that stock hack critic phrase, “A meditation…”

1 comment:

Troy Olson said...

I'm with you on this -- it's a movie that has its flaws, but it's still so damn good. For me, it's my favorite "imperfect perfect" film. Great points all around on the meditative qualities of the movie.